May 29, 2003
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Photo by Diane Chiddister
Friends Care Community residents Nell Dawkins, left, and Dorothy Tilton, right, danced the hula with Joan Gifford, a Friends Care employee, during the nursing home’s SS Friends Cruise Thursday, May 15.


Hula skirts, tropical drinks mark Friends Care cruise
Nursing home: For most people, the phrase brings to mind a depressing image of lonely old people sitting in wheelchairs in a cold, institutional setting. It’s not a phrase that people usually associate with “joy” or “happiness.”
Two weeks ago, though, Friends Care Community brought new meaning to the phrase. In honor of National Nursing Home Week, the FCC staff and residents turned their facility into a cruise ship and embarked on a four-day cruise, stopping in the imaginary ports of Hawaii, Mexico, Ireland, Africa and Barbados. In doing so, they showed that a nursing home can be a place of surprise and adventure, a place where residents still have a lot of living to do.
“There have been so many joys,” Ona Harshaw, an activities assistant, said about the week. “People have been so happy.”
Entering the facility Thursday afternoon, a visitor encountered an unexpected sight — a line of Friends Care female staff members dressed in hula skirts, performing to island music a surprisingly polished hula. The north wing had been transformed into Hawaii, and planners had pulled out all the stops — the ocean roared from a floor-to-ceiling mural while plastic palm trees dotted the hall. Residents sipped tropical fruit drinks with little umbrellas on top, watching the dancers and listening to a strolling ukulele player. The residents seemed delighted by the dancers.
“They sure know how to give a party,” resident Ellie Dale said, sipping her pink drink.
When a man with a video camera looked lost, Emily Baldwin, a social worker, steered him in the right direction. “Do you know how to get to Mexico?” she asked. “It’s right down the hall. I’ll show you.”
Sure enough, down the hall and to the left, a visitor suddenly entered a crowded Mexican street in what was once the facility’s east wing. “Margaritaville” wafted from intercoms as sombrero-wearing staff served margaritas from Dorothy’s Bar. Residents munched on Mexican pastries and chips and salsa, watching as a wheelchair-bound woman whacked a piñata until candies exploded onto the floor.
One older woman in a wheelchair, an Alzheimer’s patient, nodded her head to the music. “She usually doesn’t talk much but she likes the music,” said Kathy Murray, an activities assistant. “We’ve been getting responses from people that we don’t get otherwise. There’s a lot of smiles.”
It was Day 3 of the SS Friends four-day cruise, and residents and staff seemed to be still going strong. The event began Tuesday evening, May 13, with a Bon Voyage dinner with captain — and Friends Care administrator — Jeff Singleton, who had to protect his passengers from an unexpected pirate raid.
The following day, residents sang karaoke in the morning, then in the afternoon visited Africa, in the south hall, and Barbados, in the west wing, where residents received tattoos and ate Caribbean food. That evening, in the Monte Carlo Room — formerly the multipurpose room — residents played games of chance, and spent their winnings in a duty-free shop.
On Thursday, May 15, the casino offered blackjack and craps in the morning, and residents visited Ireland. In the afternoon, they toured Hawaii and Mexico, then were entertained by tap dancers in the evening. Friday morning, a farewell brunch brought the festivities to an end.
Asked her favorite part of the cruise, longtime Yellow Springs resident Leanna Perry, who now lives at Friends Care, couldn’t choose. “It’s nice,” she said. “I like all of it.”
Throughout the event Captain Singleton wandered around in his self-described “funny shorts,” shaking his head in wonder.
“I’ve been working in this business for 26 years,” he said later. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The event began several months ago in Baldwin’s imagination when, during the long dark days of winter, staff members said they wanted to go on a cruise. If the staff wanted a cruise, Baldwin reasoned, the residents must want one, too. Why not pretend to take a cruise in the facility?
“I thought about how much fun it would be to take an imaginary cruise,” Baldwin said. “But everyone thought it wasn’t doable.”
But Baldwin kept talking up the idea and gradually converted the doubters. The staff held lots of meetings refining the idea, she said, deciding on destinations, entertainment and decorations.
As planning proceeded, the residents got involved and just like with a real trip, Baldwin said, the planning became almost as much fun as the trip itself. Residents had passport photos taken for the trip, and trivia games focused on cruise destinations.
The event called for extra effort from the staff, and they responded in kind, said Baldwin, who also credited community volunteers and residents’ family members with pitching in.
“I can’t say enough good things about the staff, community and families,” Baldwin said. “They made it happen.”
The cruise preparations came with surprises, such as the three FCC residents — Valeska Appleberry, Alberta Lewis and Ellie Dale — who got so involved observing the practices of a tap-dancing troupe that the women took part in the performance as well, swaying and tapping their feet in their wheelchairs. Now, Baldwin said, Appleberry wants to take tap-dancing lessons.
The SS Friends Cruise dovetailed perfectly with Friends Care’s emphasis on a holistic approach to residents’ needs, Singleton said. First involved with the nationwide nursing home movement Eden Alternative, which the staff later refined into the local effort Circle of Friends, the nursing home seeks to address not just residents’ physical needs but their emotional and spiritual needs, Singleton said.
And no matter how old or how sick people are, they have the capacity for joy, Baldwin believes, and the SS Friends Cruise gave residents a chance to feel it. Like a vacation, she said, the cruise took residents to a different place, with all the surprise and excitement a new setting offers.
Most important, the event countered the stereotype of a nursing home as a place where people just sit around waiting to die, Singleton said.
“There was electricity in the air. We were making things happen,” he said. “The residents were doing, not waiting. They were living.”

—Diane Chiddister